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The Ambassador in the Soviet Union ( Bullitt ) to the Secretary of State

No. 1436

Sir: I have the honor to submit herewith certain personal observations on conditions in this country.

I believe that what follows presents an accurate picture of life in Russia in the year 1936, but a regard for truth compels me to admit that the remainder of this despatch was written not by myself but another American envoy, The Honorable Neil S. Brown of Tennessee, in his despatches to the Secretary of State in the years 1851, 1852, and 1853. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

This is a hard climate, and an American finds many things to try his patience, and but few that are capable of winning his affections. One of the most disagreeable features that he has to encounter, is the secrecy with which everything is done. He can rarely obtain accurate information, until events have transpired, and he may rely upon it, that his own movements are closely observed, by eyes that he never sees. The Russian mind seems naturally distrustful, and this is especially so with the Government officials. Everything is surrounded with ceremony, and nothing is attainable, but after the most provoking delays. Nothing is more striking to an American here on his first arrival, than the rigor of the police. It would seem that the capital15 was in a state of siege; and among all the astringents put into requisition for the preservation of peace and order none is so abhorrent, as the censorial power. As a proof of the extent to which it is carried I may mention, that the late message of the President of the United States, was not regarded in all its parts as a safe document for Russian readers, and came to their hands scathed with the censors’ knife.

It is difficult in many instances to see the reason of the application of this power, and no doubt it is often capricious. I know but one book on Russia, of foreign origin, that is admitted into the Country. Nor do I know of a single one of domestic production, from which a stranger can derive any certain information, touching the revenue, the expenditures, the strength of the army and navy, or any other matter having a political bearing. Whether all this is wise or unwise, belongs more properly to Russian statesmanship to determine. [Page 290] It presents however to the Russian mind the most unpalatable part of Russian tyranny. This is the best school in which to Americanize our countrymen, perhaps there can be found.

During the last year it has been evident, that the policy of Russia towards foreigners, and their entrance into the Country, was becoming more and more stringent. I heard of several Americans during the past summer who were unable to procure visas from the Russian Legations at different points, and were therefore compelled to abandon their journey. This arises mainly from political considerations, and a fear of foreign influence upon the popular mind. To this may be added, that there is a strong anti-foreign party in Russia, whose policy would exclude all foreigners, except for mere purposes of transient commerce. They conceive that the motive which induced Peter the Great to open the door to traders and artisans, has been answered, and that they have learned sufficiently the lessons of civilization to maintain its craft and its maxims by themselves. And yet Russia cannot boast of a single invention in mechanics, that has been practical or copied out of the Country. All they have is borrowed, except their miserable climate, and even upon that, they are paying an enormous rate of usury, in the defences, and privations of winter. They fight their battles on borrowed capital, and make loans to build their railways. Their best vessels are built in England and the United States. And all their arts and pursuits, though cultivated and pressed, with commendable diligence and a good degree of success, are the products of foreign genius, and duplicates of inventions and discoveries of a people wiser than themselves. No nation has more need of foreigners, and none is so jealous of them. These remarks have no special reference to Americans. On the contrary the Americans rank as high here as any other people, and though republicans they are known and acknowledged not to be propagandists.

I had a good deal during last winter to try my patience, for the Government possesses in an exquisite degree, the art of worrying a foreign representative without giving him even the consolation of an insult. The position as an Ambassador here is far from being pleasant. The opinion prevails, that no communication, at least of a public nature, is safe in the Post Office, but is opened and inspected as a matter of course. Hence those Legations that can afford it, maintain regular couriers, and never send anything by mail. The opinion also prevails, that Ministers are constantly subjected to a system of espionage, and that even their servants are made to disclose what passes in their households, their conversations, associations, et cetera. Of all this I have had no positive evidence, but I believe there is some foundation for such charges. To be made to apprehend such a state of things is exceedingly annoying. If therefore I do not write as often as may be desired, this is my apology. And if I do not furnish [Page 291] matter of more interest it must be attributed in part at least, to the great difficulty of obtaining correct information. No courtesy or liberality whatever, is shown in this particular by this Government. But I do not believe that I have any grievances on this subject, which are not common to other Legations. Secrecy and mystery characterize everything. Nothing is made public that is worth knowing. You will find no two individuals agreeing in the strength of the army and navy, in the amount of the public debt, or the annual revenue. In my opinion it is not intended these things should be known.

Display is a policy as well as a passion with the Russian Government. The popular mind is well adapted to this sort of finesse. A strange superstition prevails among the Russians that they are destined to conquer the world: While appeals to the soldiery founded upon the idea of fatality, and its glorious rewards, are seldom made in vain. To a feeling of this sort has been attributed that remarkable patience and endurance which distinguish the Russian soldier in the midst of the greatest privations.*

Respectfully yours,

William C. Bullitt
  1. St. Petersburg.
  2. The above extracts are verbatim except for several inconsequential omissions, and for the fact that in three instances the word “Empire” has been changed to “Country” and in one instance the word “Minister” has been changed to “Ambassador”. [Footnote in the original.]